What did Beto O’Rourke mean this week when he asked reporters covering the white terrorist massacre in El Paso, TX, “members of the press, what the fuck?”
With those seven words, or maybe just the last three, O’Rourke captured widespread frustration with a political media that often refuses to see President Trump for what he is, and the political media spent the next 24 hours deepening that frustration.
Trump had just incited a racist mass murder in Texas, but after he read haltingly from a teleprompter, we were told, “He really did set a different tone than he did in the past when it comes to condemning this hate.” The New York Times processed the day’s developments with an astonishing but provisional A1 headline that blared “TRUMP URGES UNITY VS RACISM” before backtracking to a less insulting, but still upside-down version, “ASSAILING HATE, NOT GUNS.”
This familiar, through-the-eyes-of-babes routine explains why O’Rourke’s comments went viral. But in full context, O’Rourke didn’t just call on journalists to stop letting Trump’s speechwriters dictate their headlines and analysis. He asked them to meet a larger challenge.
The reporter’s question was “Is there anything in your mind that the president can do now to make this any better?”—phrased like many before it to elicit another plaintive call for Trump to lead. Two and a half years into his presidency and four years since he launched his campaign, this is a bit like reading a history of the United States and wondering a few chapters in why Nathan Bedford Forrest wouldn’t just play nice.
O’Rourke responded, “What do you think? You know the shit he’s been saying. He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. I don’t know, like, members of the press, what the fuck? Hold on a second. You know, it’s these questions that you know the answers to. I mean, connect the dots about what he’s been doing in this country. He’s not tolerating racism, he’s promoting racism. He’s not tolerating violence, he’s inciting racism and violence in this country. So, um, you know, I just—I don’t know what kind of question that is.”
If you accept, as you should, that Trump’s racist incitement is neither accidental, nor some unthinking cynicism that he can be talked out of, but a symptom of his profound moral deformities, the only earnest answer to the question—what can he do to make this better?—is that he should vanish. He can not stop being who he fundamentally is. He will not resign from office, repent, and enter seclusion. He does the bad things he does for reasons that are neither mysterious nor irrational, and so he can’t make things better any more than peddlers of junk food, narcotics, alcohol, and tobacco can improve the country’s physical health. A terrorist attack may not have been Trump’s goal exactly, but to the extent that it confirms he has successfully nurtured hatred, paranoia, and grievance, he is not unhappy about it.
And this is why O’Rourke’s challenge, connect the dots, won’t just be hard for many political journalists to meet—it helps explain why they adopt the naive pose in the first place. Trump isn’t just rotten in this one realm, but in all that he does, and connecting the dots would require journalists inclined to cover campaigns and “normal” partisan combat to look aghast at a sinister pattern of behavior, and alert the country to it.
One recent incident that attracted relatively scant attention connects his racist incitement with his other nefarious activities: his unlawful intrusion in the war-crimes case of Eddie Gallagher, the Navy SEAL who fatally stabbed a teenage ISIS fighter, posed with his corpse, then threatened to kill anyone who reported him. Trump helped secure Gallagher’s acquittal, then ordered the Navy to strip the prosecutors who tried him of the achievement medals they were awarded for doing their jobs well. The Gallagher case became a right wing cause célèbre, saturated with jingoism and Islamophobia, which is surely why Trump first took interest in it. But what purpose did he serve by punishing war-crimes prosecutors whose superiors determined they had acted appropriately? Why would the president want to communicate to certain favored, dangerous people that they have his permission to be violent, and that those who stand in their way will be scorned, abused, or purged? It is easier to look away than to connect the dots, because if the president has truly fascistic ambitions—if he has abused his power to recruit violent sympathizers in the military or civilian life with the lure of immunity—then conventional journalism lacks the language to say so.
But Trump sends signals like this all the time, and not just to his violent allies. We know from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report that Trump privately (and through intermediaries) dangled pardons to some of the most important witnesses in the Russia investigation. We also have reason to suspect this obstruction prevented investigators from establishing a criminal conspiracy. Consider the different ways Trump has treated different members of his inner circle who, with pardons dangling before them, eventually agreed to cooperate with Mueller. One of these associates, Michael Cohen, cooperated fully with prosecutors and members of Congress investigating Trump, who in turn responded by calling Cohen a rat and threatening to go after his father in law over unenumerated crimes.
By contrast, Trump continued to express public sympathy for two other convicted felons in his inner circle—Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort—after they agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Both of them turned out to be less forthcoming than Cohen and both ultimately violated their cooperation agreements.
We don’t know when or if Trump will pardon either man, but we do know why they might suspect he will, completely apart from any private arrangements they have with him. Trump has repeatedly pardoned cronies, in some cases for no clear reason other than to demonstrate that he isn’t afraid to pardon people for the kinds of crimes his campaign aides have been convicted of committing.
You can’t connect the dots here if you’re unable to grapple with the possibility that Trump orchestrated a far-reaching criminal coverup. Or that he’s intentionally encouraged others to to break the law or abuse their powers to help him win election and re-election. The dots encircle the hatred he’s incited, the violence he’s condoned, the impunity he seeks for supporters, the retaliatory measures he takes against his enemies, his attempts to coerce big media companies and tech platforms like CNN, the Washington Post, and Google to toe a party line, and cluster most heavily around his relationship with Russia. Why does Trump continue to deny that the Russian government committed crimes to help his campaign and that its attacks on our elections continue? Why did he want to place a crony who espouses those same lies in charge of the intelligence community?
The answers to these questions are no more reassuring or elusive than the answer to the question that bedevils the political establishment most of all: Why does Trump constantly stoke hatred of immigrants and Muslims and minorities? They are all easy to answer if you can acknowledge that Trump is engaged in a fundamentally malevolent project. The inability to do that, and the attendant unwillingness to connect the dots around it, has given rise to a media failure that in some ways exceeds the 2002 and 2003 coverage of the build up to war in Iraq. The consequences of this more recent failure have not been as catastrophic, not so far anyhow, but at least back then the fact that the Bush administration was building a case for war with Iraq didn’t escape the notice even of the reporters who most eagerly laundered its lies and propaganda.
Today, before our eyes, Trump and his allies seek to crush the foundations of multiracial democracy and replace them with a white ethnostate where the ruling class directs violence at scapegoat communities to create the climate it needs to get away with looting the country and dismantling all checks on its power. If you can see that, and articulate it, you don’t ask what Trump might do to make things better, or say he “urges unity vs. racism.” If you can’t see it, or your job requires you to blind yourself to it, you must treat his ultimate purposes as an impenetrable mystery. You might explain away his efforts to end an investigation of an attack on the United States, and his coziness with the perpetrator, as impulses of a man who merely worries the Russia matter undermines his legitimacy. You might marvel at his occasional, scripted, disingenuous condemnations of all the forces he has fostered, and chase down Democrats to ask them if they think Trump is racist. But seriously: What the fuck?